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Innovation – Innovation and Project Management

The previous two articles focused on how organisations decide which projects to do and how to allocate scarce resources amongst all the choices.  Now that the decisions have been made, the next step is to make sure that projects are completed within time, within budget and delivering what has been promised.
What does project management have to do with innovation you ask?  I mentioned in a previous article, the approach of Paul Williams, who defines innovation in terms of the equation: Need + Ideas + Action = Innovation.  Needs come from a variety of sources, e.g. unexpected occurrences, incongruities, process needs, market changes, customer demands, changes in demographics, new knowledge and new technologies.  Ideas come from creative problem solving, problem identification, idea generation and creativity. Action comes from the processes and activities surrounding making the best ideas become real things. Sometimes the action results in the form of prototypes, or test software or models. To get there most reliably, you need the type of rigour found in project management or new product (and service) development processes.  Thus, project management is the “execution side” of innovation.
Project Management
I have been involved in project management from the very first day of my career and if there is one thing I can guarantee you with regards to projects, it is that things will deviate from the plan, no matter what.  The cause for this “truth” is actually simple, it is because the environment and circumstances under which the plan was made, begin to change the second the plan is finished.  The reason I am accentuating this issue in project management, is because it is even more so with “innovation” projects.  Innovation, per definition involves novelty or newness and therefore a lot of unknowns and unforeseen issues.
There are definitely significant differences between “ordinary” business projects and innovation projects.  The differences being the following:  Innovation projects tend to start with loosely defined, sometimes even ambiguous objectives that become clearer as the project proceeds; The processes used are more experimental and exploratory and seldom follow strict linear guidelines; Teams need to be more diverse and have a higher level of trust as they explore new territory where failure is a possibility; With failure as a built-in possibility, innovation teams are more actively involved with risk management and need to learn to fail fast and fail smart in order to move on to more attractive options. All this seems like a tall order to bear for an organisation, where the objective is usually stability and predictability, but I am of opinion that project management excellence provides the greatest innovation advantage, because even in an ambiguous environment, project management brings some structure to an inherently unstructured activity.  There are project management methodologies that are specifically inclined to managing innovation projects, such as the Agile project management methodology.  Agile methodology is an alternative to traditional project management; it helps teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work tempos.  It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the detail of this methodology, but if your organisation deals with many projects where a lot of uncertainties are involved, it is definitely worth looking into.
Next Time
Now that I have covered the process of figuring out what to do (portfolio planning) and how to do it (project management), the next logical thing to discuss is the outcome. Now that the new product, process or service has been delivered, the organisation needs to determine if the envisioned benefits were achieved, i.e. measuring if the innovation delivered on the promise.
Also referred to as ‘Measuring and Evaluation”, it is the topic for the next article.  I conclude with a quote from Steve Maraboli: “When you establish a destination by defining what you want, then take physical action by making choices that move you towards that destination. The possibility for success is limitless and arrival at the destination is inevitable”.

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